Using your breathing to calm yourself down is one of the most simple, portable techniques for managing stress that you can have. You could pretty much always use breathing to help you feel more relaxed. In fact, I love to read anything about breathing or breathing techniques, even if I know all the information inside out, because the act of reading about breathing reminds me to breathe more slowly and deeply, and I get more relaxed as a result!
With that in mind, before we go any further, pause now and slow down your breathing. Take a deep breathe, and continue to breathe in for the count of 4. Now breathe out for the count of 4. Stop and repeat that four more times.
For those of you who like to skip exercises and read ahead, I’ll put the exercise in black and white so you’re encouraged to give it a go!
In, 2, 3, 4. Out, 2, 3, 4. In, 2, 3, 4. Out, 2, 3, 4. In, 2, 3, 4. Out, 2, 3, 4. In, 2, 3, 4. Out, 2, 3, 4. In, 2, 3, 4. Out, 2, 3, 4.
I find five times is enough to start to feel relaxed and if you’re so inclined, enough motivation to keep going.
Keep in mind breathing is not a magic wand. It doesn’t take away anxiety and stress. It relaxes you a little bit, both because of the way it affects you physically, but also because of what it can do to your mindset.
Now, onto how to use mindset to enhance your feelings of relaxation.
Gratitude: If you’re breathing, you’re alive
By reminding yourself to breathe, you’re not just relaxing yourself, you can also take the opportunity to notice that no matter how bad the situation is that you’re in, you’re still okay. In fact, in most situations where you remind yourself to breathe, you’ll find that not only are you alive, but you’re actually in a situation that isn’t life threating. You’re aiming to invoke a gratitude-type mindset. Yes, my kids aren’t listening to me, the boss is hounding me for work I haven’t done, and the car has broken down – again. But I’m here. I’m not physically hurt, and no-one else is either. I have a job in which to be hounded. Fixing the car might stretch the budget, but I have a budget to stretch. Stopping to remind yourself of what’s going right in your life as you focus on your breathing, can drastically improve your outlook on the situation.
Take the Power Back
Feeling stressed is associated with feeling out of control – things are happening. Things you don’t like. Things you don’t like and can’t stop. That’s pretty much the way stress works. Taking control of your breathing sends a message to your mind that you’re in control - at least a little bit, at least you have control over something.
And it sounds funny, but that mental reset, the idea that there is at least one thing you can control, can be enough to reset your train of thinking so that you start to look for (and hopefully find) other things you can control. Because in addition to your breathing, you also have in your control the way you react to a situation. Sometimes this is difficult to accept or acknowledge or act on, but it is objectively true. No-one forces you to yell, or to think certain thoughts. That stuff is all ultimately under your control, even if it might take some expert help before you understand how you can train yourself to be more in control of your reactions (need help with that? Book an appointment with me!).
Disclaimer: Knowing how to change your reactions and understanding they are under your control is not a guarantee that you’ll always be able to react as you’d like. It’s quite difficult to do that. Almost impossible. So don’t beat yourself up if you can only alter your reactions a little bit, or some of the time.
Get Zen on Yourself
Okay, so you’re not feeling grateful even though you know you do have good things going on for you. And changing your reactions has proven to be as difficult as shoving an elephant through your bedroom window. What’s left?
Use your mind to, well, escape your mind! Be mindful of your breathing. Nothing to do, nothing to change. Just focus on what’s happening in your body as you breathe, and let go of what’s going on in your mind altogether. Feel your lungs inflate as you breathe in, hear the sound of your breath as you breathe out. Notice what it feels like to try and completely inflate your lungs, and then concentrate on emptying them as fully as you can. Focus fully on your nose as you draw the breath through your nostrils. Feel your mouth and jaw relax as you release your breath from your body. Spend just one minute on focusing on whatever is happening in your physical body as you breathe, and adjusting it if you’d like (sometimes it’s not until you stop and pay attention that you notice how tired/hungry/cold/tense/thirsty you are, and if you can fix that, it will help your stress levels too). Just one tiny minute away from thinking will reset your mindset in an enormous way.
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Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.